Lord Dunsay once said (alright fine, he said it over and over again, a favorite line of his at chess tournaments, African game hunting and war) that the land of fantasy existed ‘beyond the fields we know’. That to enter the realm of faerie and the impossible we had to leap that final fence at the far edge of the field and wonder into that forest most strange and glamorous, to tread where human feet were not meant to go.
So. How many fantasy novels have you read that have truly strayed off the beaten track? Left the fields of men and gone deep into the mysteries of the impossible, wonderful, bizarre, surreal and strange?
Heck, seems like most ‘fantasy’ novels are as filled with tropes and stereotypes as anything else. When one thinks fantasy, immediately a number of basic themes and items come to mind. You’ve got your average idealized Western Medieval setting, replete with castles, knights, swords, knaves, battles, kings, advisers, assassins, honest yeomen, etc, etc. Throw in a dash of rehashed Tolkien (elves, dwarves, dragons, Barbara Streisand, rangers, etc), and you have your basic fantasy novel.
But come on, it goes beyond similar settings. Even the plots tend to be the same. Young kid with a nothing background discovers that he has inherited magic power/weapon of doom/strange destiny/whatever and now he has to gather a small band of intrepid friends about him as he journeys to save the world from the Dark Lord against all odds, yada yada.
I mean, this isn’t exactly ‘beyond the fields we know’. This is some old retrodden ground here.
It’s rare that you come across an actual fantastic setting. Few break the mold. Because there’s a fine balance between titillating the reader and losing him. Go too far into faerie and your reader won’t follow. They’ll linger back by the gate, hand on the post, uncertain and finally annoyed that you’re not speaking intelligibly. So you have to strike that balance. You need to lure the reader in with certain familiarity, but then take them as far as you can go.
What novels have you read that really went out there? That did something new? Why is our fantasy so predictable, so constrained by what has gone before? China Mieville is excellent at forging new ground. Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis forged some new ground with their Death Gate series. Gene Wolfe hit it out of the park with his New Sun series (after a serious nod of respect to ol’ Man Vance). People love Neil Gaiman for what he did with his Sandman books. But what else?
Imagine me speaking in Tyler Durden’s voice here:
“I say, fuck dragons and castles. I say, leave the Middle Ages behind. I say, forget Tolkien and the Quest. I say, make some shit up. Unfetter your imagination, and do something new. Quit looking over your shoulder at what has gone before and mix them up, cross this with that and invert that part over there. Play with gravity, the law of physics, the basics of biology. Make up new monsters, new fears. Find new heroes, new foes. Imagine new moralities, new cultures, new needs and desires. The next time you sit down to write fantasy, god damn it, write something that’s actually fantastic.”